Alfred Grand mit Erde in der Hand
Author: Hanno Meier
Pictures: Hanno Meier

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

An Organic Farmer, a Healthy Fertilizer, and Millions of Little Helpers

And Alfred Grand catches a lot of worms—think hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions! But why? His worms do exactly what you’d expect them to—they improve the soil. But Grand’s Farm also takes things one step farther. In a 60-by-20-meter shed, the small, slippery soil-lovers produce pure, high-quality fertilizer known as earthworm compost.

When asked how many earthworms he has, the organic farmer from the Wagram region in Austria jokes, “Once a month, we line them all up for a roll call and count them one by one.” When the trained winegrower from the Danube plain takes a handful of soil from a large tub, you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of little helpers he has working for him. The soil wriggles, coils, and writhes around in his hand; it’s full of life. With scientific backing from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Alfred Grand has figured out the ideal living conditions for his wriggly friends. The proof it works? It’s in the palm of his hand. It’s not just adult worms, either—from small worm larvae a fraction of a millimeter thick to one-millimeter-long baby worms, worms of all sizes wriggle their way through the soil. Grand’s little helpers multiply and produce around 500 cubic meters of invaluable substrate every year.

Nahaufnahme von einem Wurm

From Austria to UC Berkeley

Grand got into worms completely by chance. In 2006, the Wagram native switched completely to organic farming. “I was interested in composting,” he explains, walking through the huge barn. It’s a sunny, cold day in March. All around me, massive raised beds stretch from one side of the barn to the other, leaving only a two-meter-wide aisle free in the middle. During regular composting—which also precedes the worm compost production process—he noticed the high temperature generated in the soil. In principle, this is a good thing and actually desirable because it eliminates germs, pests, and diseases from organic waste. However, temperatures of 140 to 170 degrees also kill off healthy soil fauna.

Alfred Grand beobachtet seine Pflanzen

Through his online research, the Austrian found himself across the Atlantic, where “worm compost was already a trend 15 to 20 years ago.” Eager to see this with his own eyes, Grand boarded the plane and headed stateside to dig his way through American earthworm farms and onward to the Berkeley campus. The fact that scientists from the prestigious University of California (UC) were researching “his” subject fascinated the organic farmer in the same way that astronomers are fascinated by a wormhole in space. “Trained by earthworms,” grins the assistant winegrower, who admits he had “never really been academically minded,” when talking about his cheeky appearance at UC despite his lack of scientific background. Back on home soil, he began to pester researchers at universities and institutes in Austria and far beyond with his cause.

Grand’s Healthy Soil Mission

His commitment to the cause captured the zeitgeist of the time: He cites an EU study showing that 60 to 70 percent of soil in the EU is currently considered “unhealthy,” which is why the Soil Health and Food Mission Board set the target of making 75 percent of soil in the EU healthy again by 2030. Grand is just as committed to this panel of experts as he is to “lighthouse farms”—farms that are used to research how to improve soil and give managers from the food production and food marketing sectors insights into current problems. The Global Network of Lighthouse Farms plans to create 100 new institutions in the near future. There are 14 lighthouse farms already in existence—-“and we are one of them,” beams Grand.

Eine Hand voll Erde und Würmer

He has already joined forces with consultants from the USA and bankers from the Netherlands. In the same breath, he mentions scientists from the Institute of Soil Research at the University of Vienna, who were only yesterday in his fields taking soil samples. In the evening, Grand will hop in his Landcruiser and head to Vienna to pick up a small team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands at the airport. Experts rank Wageningen among the world’s most important scientific institutions in the field of life sciences. Their researchers share Grand’s mission—a soil deal for Europe.

Alfred Grand kniet am Boden und betrachtet die Pflanzen

The secrets of Soil Fauna and Eficient Worm Composting

Grand provides research areas for students and PhD candidates. He suggests many research topics that further his cause on the basis of practical experience. It’s all about the best and most productive worm species—65 of which are found in Austria—the optimum soil moisture level, the type and composition of the substrate, the temperature, and various other parameters.

“The worms allow us to bring invaluable natural soil fauna back into the humus,” adds Grand. Since he has found worms that work exclusively in the upper layer of the substrate, the production process runs around the clock. Once a week, raw substrate is re-added to the top, and the same quantity of high-quality refined worm compost is collected from the bottom.

Alfred Grand steht neben einem Erdhaufen und analysiert diesen

Sustainable Agriculture with Earthworms, Agroforestry, and Market Gardening

Grand has long since continued on his path, establishing three areas of focus on his organic farm: First, the earthworms ensure natural soil health and fertilization without polluting the groundwater with nitrates. Next, his agroforestry project brings suitable trees and shrubs back into the monocultural landscape. Finally, the market garden is researching a vegetable cultivation system—he currently grows around 80 different varieties on small plots of land with great biodiversity and sustainability, in partnership with a regional marketing system.

Earthworms are responsible for good soil, the right trees and shrubs ensure biodiversity on the farmland, and consumers have access to nutritious vegetables delivered via short transport routes to the markets in the Vienna area.

And it goes without saying that the equipment used by workers in the fields must also fit into the sustainability chain.

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